The American Leisure Class
Thorstein Veblen During the earlier stages of economic development, consumption of goods without stint, especially consumption of the better grades of goods – ideally all consumption in excess of the subsistence minimum – pertains normally to the leisure class. This restriction tends to disappear, at least formally, after the later peaceable stage has been reached with private ownership of goods and an industrial system based on wage labour or on the petty household economy.
The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure … consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities. This growth of punctilious discrimination as to qualitative excellence in eating, drinking, etc. , presently affects not only the manner of life, but also the training and intellectual activity of the gentleman of leisure.
He is no longer simply the successful, aggressive male – the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dances and the narcotics.
This cultivation of the aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner. His life of leisure must be conducted in due form. Hence arise good manners. High-bred manners and ways of living are items of conformity to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption. This blending and confusion of the elements of expensiveness and of beauty is, perhaps, best exemplified in articles of dress and of household furniture. The code of reputability in matters of dress decides what shapes, colours, materials and general effects in human apparel are for the time to be accepted as suitable: and departures from the code are offensive to our taste, supposedly as being departures from aesthetic truth.
The approval with which we look upon fashionable attire is by no means to be accounted pure make-believe. We readily, and for the most part with utter sincerity, find those things pleasing that are in vogue. Shaggy dress-stuffs and pronounced colour effects, for instance, offend us at times when the vogue is goods of a high, glossy finish and neutral colours.
A fancy bonnet of this year’s model unquestionably appeals to our sensibilities today much more forcibly than an equally fancy bonnet of the model of least year: although when viewed in the perspective of a quarter of a century, it would, I apprehend, be a matter of the utmost difficulty to award the palm for intrinsic beauty to the one rather that to the other of these structures. …. It has in the course of economic development become the office of the woman to consume vicariously for the head of the household; and her apparel is contrived with this object in view.
It has come about that obviously productive labour is in a peculiar degree derogatory to respectable women, and therefore special pains should be taken in the construction of women’s dress to impress upon the beholder the fact (often indeed a fiction) that the wearer does not and can not habitually engage in useful work. Propriety requires respectable women to abstain more consistently from useful effort and to make more of a show of leisure than the men of the same social classes.
It grates painfully on our nerves to contemplate the necessity of any well-bred woman’s earning a livelihood by useful work. It is not ‘women’s sphere’. Her sphere is within the household, which she should ‘beautify’, and of which she should be the ‘chief ornament’. The male head of the household is not currently spoken of as its ornament. This feature taken in conjunction with the other fact that propriety requires more unremitting attention to expensive display in the dress and other paraphernalia of women, goes to enforce the view already implied in what has gone before.
By virtue of its descent from a patriarchal past, our social system makes it the woman’s function in an especial degree to put in evidence her household’s ability to pay. According to the modern civilized scheme of life, the good name of the household to which she belongs should be the special care of the woman; and the system of honorific expenditure and conspicuous leisure by which this good name is chiefly sustained is therefore the woman’s sphere …
Source: Veblen, T. (1953) the Theory of the Leisure Class. New York. Mentor. pp. 64-5, 97 and 126. First published by Macmillan in 1899 and 1912.